Joan Cheever prepares soup for donation. Photo by Scott Ball.
Joan Cheever prepares soup as part of a free meal in Maverick Park. Photo by Scott Ball.

The City of San Antonio’s Department of Human Services (DHS) has come up with a set of proposed rules that would allow charitable groups and individuals to feed homeless people without violating health and safety regulations. The “Charitable Feeding Policy” would allow for distribution of prepared food within designated areas on the edges of downtown as long as at least one person with a food handler’s card is present instead of requiring them to go through the more onerous process for food trucks.

There is currently no language in the City Code that addresses “charitable feeding.” If approved by City Council, this proposal would add a section for just that purpose.

The rules were presented to the City’s Housing Committee on Tuesday and members agreed to forward the proposal to full City Council discussion during an upcoming B Session yet to be scheduled. One of the main recommendations of the committee was for DHS to continue to work stakeholder – especially those charitable organizations that would be effected by the revision of the City’s food and food handlers regulations.

Joan Cheever, owner of The Chow Train charitable food truck who attended the meeting on Tuesday, said the City’s proposal was “a good first step” but that charitable feeders and the City are not on the same page quite yet, citing concerns with some of the proposal.

Joan Cheever points out a spot to sit. Photo by Scott Ball.
Joan Cheever gives input during the Homeless Feeding Summit on July 28, 2015. Photo by Scott Ball.

The proposal comes more than five months after Cheever was ticketed for giving away free meals in Maverick Park from her personal vehicle, which doesn’t have food truck permits. The ensuing public outcry and national attention to her plight – a woman on a mission to feed San Antonio’s most vulnerable population – led to the City dropping the citation and hosting a Homeless Feeding Summit in July.

City officials and staff gathered data and input from more than 20 charitable organizations involved with feeding San Antonio’s homeless, 10 downtown businesses, and several different City departments during that summit to formulate Tuesday’s proposal.

Click here to download the DHS’s presentation.

Under the new rules, if “charitable feeders” are distributing only prepackaged, non-perishable foods or whole, uncut fruit and vegetables, a food handler’s certification would not be required.  Cooked meals or not, DHS is asking for notice of a charitable feeding event within 24 hours before or after to keep track of frequency and location in case of an outbreak of foodborne illness.

Cheever has a fairly regular schedule serving several locations in San Antonio. In that kind of situation, said DHS Director Melody Woosley, a calendar of when and where she’ll be would suffice rather than individual notices each time.

Cheever’s main problem is with the Special Downtown Mobile Food Vending Permit Area’s boundary adjustment (see map below).

The red dotted line outlines the boundary for where food trucks need a special permit in order to operate. The shaded yellow portion of the map is the proposed boundary.

Special Downtown Mobile Food Vending Permit Area. Image courtesy of COSAGOV.
Special Downtown Mobile Food Vending Permit Area. Image courtesy of COSAGOV.

In order to serve food from a food truck in downtown San Antonio, vendors must obtain a special permit on top of the health and safety certifications food truck have to operate outside of downtown.

“The CCDO (Center City Development and Operations Department) requires those downtown permits in order to control traffic in downtown areas that can get congested,” Woosley told the Rivard Report after the meeting.

The proposal moves the boundaries of this permit area to avoid most of the locations where charitable organizations feed homeless people.

“Most of the charitable feeding is occurring on the edges of downtown, which have been removed from the zone where a mobile vending permit is required,” Woosley said.

Cheever is not impressed with this tactic. She argues that food truck boundaries should not apply to charitable feeding operations in the first place – why change the boundaries?

“You’re supposed to serve the poor were you find them,” she said. “I’m concerned that we’re zoning where you can be charitable and a good Samaritan.”

The neighborhood surrounding Maverick park, for instance, is experiencing a boom in development and may become a dog park if some local businesses and residents have their way.

“If Maverick Park turns into a dog park … then they’ll move on,” Cheever said of the people she feeds at the park every Tuesday. “Would they have to change the boundary to accommodate?”

As part of the new rules, DHS is proposing that food handler’s certification be offered to charitable feeders for free. The certification process, which is usually $15, can be completed online or in person through the Health Department.

“While feeding the homeless is the primary goal, safety is necessary and remains something we need to balance in this equation,” stated Councilmember Cris Medina (D7) in a news release. His office sponsored food handling certifications for charitable organizations and their representatives through the Good Food in Good Faith program earlier this year. “I am pleased to be able to play role in supporting the spirit of our charitable community, and applaud the staff recommendations to meet on a middle ground.”

Cheever said she’d like to see food handler’s courses available more often.

“If they’re really concerned about food safety then make these available more than four times a year for free,” she said.

Cheever’s citation, issued by the San Antonio Police Department on April 7, was dropped by the City in July amid Cheever’s threat to file a lawsuit that challenges the constitutionality of ticketing her under the First Amendment’s freedom of religion. She still has a copy of the suit on file and is looking at lawsuits in Dallas for information and inspiration.

In March 2013, a judge found Dallas’ Food Ordinance in violation of the Texas Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Two ministries that sued the City claimed it was their “biblical duty to feed and comfort the hungry while spreading the gospel.” The City of Dallas was ordered to pay attorney fees and court costs to the ministries.

By the end of 2014, the city implemented a less-strict ordinance. According to the Dallas Morning News: “The ordinance’s new write-through removes across-the-board mandates that anyone feeding people for free notify the city in advance and provide running water and bathroom services. Instead, groups must provide notice if they intend to serve more than 75 people and must provide at least hand sanitizer, if not water for washing.”

Woosley said DHS will continue to work with charity organizations to fine-tune the new homeless feeding rules between now and when the full City Council will discuss the ordinance.

“We’ll be reaching out to her,” Woosley said of Cheever. “There are a lot more opportunities for public input.”

*Top image: Joan Cheever prepares soup as part of a free meal in Maverick Park.  Photo by Scott Ball. 

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Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. She was the San Antonio Report's...